The 4 biggest differences between being in your 20s and your 30s

Julia McVeighAuthor Julia McVeigh says she’s noticed four big changes between her 20s and her 30s.
  • Your 20s are hard, but being in your 30s presents a whole new set of challenges.
  • People in their 30s are expected to achieve more and find themselves going down life paths different from their friends’.
  • But your 30s bring a greater level of self-awareness, too.
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You’re 23, fresh out of college.

Maybe you’re in debt from student loans or blowing an entire paycheck on rent. Perhaps you are struggling to find a career that’s meaningful (or you’ve come to the crushing realisation that a vocation can provide only so much meaning).

And, in all likelihood, your love life – a soup of devastating heartbreak, fleeting magic, and careless disasters – is best characterised as a “mess.”

Yes, your 20s are hard. Popular culture and popular opinion tell us this, as does research. And for many 20-somethings (myself included, at the time) knowing that this decade is made for mistakes and misfires is a welcome palliative: The confusion, disappointment, and ego-bruising are all part of the formative process of becoming an adult.

Eventually, things will get easier. Right?

I’m now in 30s – and, by all accounts, firmly in the “adult” camp – and realise that the answer to this question is both yes and no.

There are major differences between the two eras, and the transition from 20-something to 30-something contains both major learning pains and liberating realisations.

Here are the four biggest differences I’ve witnessed between my 20s and my 30s.

Everyone is no longer going through the same thing at the same time

Smith Collection/Getty Images

When I was a 20-something, I was pretty bonded with my contemporaries. In many cases, we were all recent college graduates, new entrants in the workforce, single (or at least unmarried), and desperately striving to become adults.

United by gaffes at work, embarrassingly bad dates, and mice infestations in our shoebox-sized apartments, my 20-something friends and I laughed – and cried – our way through it all.

Now that I’m in my 30s, my peers and I are less obviously intertwined through common identifiers. I’m a married mum that works part time and lives in the suburbs; a best friend of mine is single, works 60 hours a week, and lives in downtown Manhattan. In fact, the 30-something of 2019 has multiple personalities, and I’ve known them all: the career-focused city dweller, the jet-setting bachelor, the glamorous serial dater, and the shell-shocked divorcée.

On the surface, all of them are pretty different from me – except that they’re my age.

Coming to terms with the fact that I’m no longer in lockstep with my peers was initially disorienting. But now I’m at peace knowing my fellow 30-somethings can and often will be in stages of their lives different from mine. I’ve learned that real bonds are forged through emotional, moral, and intellectual alignment; they’re not made because someone is or isn’t a parent.

There’s a lot more pressure to achieve — and compete

If your 20s are considered to be a dress rehearsal for adulthood, your 30s are the real performance.

The permission to flail and fail in well-meaning youth is stripped away. Now is the time to achieve traditionally “adult” milestones. This includes – but is not limited to – procuring the following: an impressive title to update your LinkedIn page with; a good-looking life partner; an Instagram-worthy wedding; cute, undemanding children; and a house with multiple bedrooms for said children.

Those who fail to meet these ambitious milestones may feel inadequate. Those who are striving to achieve them may feel pressure to compete with their peers. And, man, is this a bummer. Once upon a time, us 20-somethings shared our mistakes with ease and humour; as a 30-something, this type of breezy, endearing vulnerability is increasingly absent.

I don’t miss the messiness of and uncertainty I felt in my 20s, but I do miss the camaraderie I shared with my contemporaries over said messiness and uncertainty. Which, incidentally, doesn’t go away once you have attained a big house, a killer job, or a 1-year-old that knows the alphabet.

For women, age is suddenly a ‘thing’

As a 20-something woman, you are essentially untouchable – society loves youth and so does your metabolism! Your hangovers are cured by a greasy breakfast sandwich, your neck isn’t sore after working 12-hour days, and jean shorts look cute on you.

But once you hit your 30s, things begin to change. You’re not exactly “old,” but you do have some faint lines on your forehead (Botox?!). Hangovers are 24-hour affairs. Jean shorts look less cute. And if you’re single and over 35, the clock is ticking. Consider freezing your eggs immediately!

There’s no denying that when women hit their 30s, age starts to become a factor. I’ve noticed subtle and not-so-subtle cultural reminders that I am, indeed, ageing. Which is fine – I am! What I find distressing, however, is that women in their 30s are expected to “fight” the signs of ageing with everything in their arsenal – as if there exists an indisputable truth that somehow younger equals better.

The irony is, many of the 30-something women I know are the most beautiful, authentic, and dynamic versions of themselves right now. They don’t want to go back to being their 22-year-old self – except, maybe, when they have a hangover.

Self-awareness exists where there once was self-indulgence


My 20s were an undeniably self-indulgent time. I spent the entire decade blithely indulging my wants and desires. I travelled tirelessly, ate out at overpriced, blaringly loud restaurants and spent way too much money on handbags.

But despite the fact that I often did what I wanted, I didn’t know what I needed. For example, some of those dinners out were spent in an anxiety-filled funk. I couldn’t put my finger on what I needed, but it certainly was not another $US20 gimlet.

Self-awareness has come with age, and it has transformed my life for the better. Self-awareness has helped me to identify what my needs are. It has also taught me that my needs are very, very different from my wants and desires. The former is essential and nonnegotiable; the latter is ephemeral and superficial.

For example, in my 20s, I wanted new clothes constantly – an expensive, self-indulgent, and stressful habit. In my 30s, I’ve refocused that energy on nurturing my needs – a loving marriage, strong friendships, a healthy lifestyle, and hobbies like reading and writing.

Having attained greater self-awareness has made me more confident, more relaxed, and generally more sympathetic toward myself and others. It has also made my 30s a heck of lot more fun than my 20s – even without those gimlet-filled dinners, which still happen occasionally.

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